High-Speed Networks of the Industrial Revolution

Now a paragon of drowsy tranquility, this haven was once the innermost, pulsating core of the Industrial Revolution: Packet House by the Bridgewater Canal, Worsley, Lancashire (now Greater Manchester). The first fully man-made English canal was initiated here 1759 by the Duke of Bridgewater – to move coal mined on his estate to Manchester, then a growing, energy-hungry manufacturing hub. (Photo credit Tom Jeffs/Wikimedia Commons.)

A few years ago, board game designer Martin Wallace – usually very apt at gauging & hitting a trend with his popular productions – released a game the success of which he had not expected. Since then this game has consistently featured among the Top 10 most popular productions in the board gaming subculture. By some standards, it even seems more popular than ever. The game is Brass. It recreates an economic & technological chain reaction which exploded in a reasonably delimited area – roughly England’s Lancashire & Midlands – during the later 18th Century. This chain of events is now widely recognized as the initiating phase of the Industrial Revolution.

Despite the game’s great entertainment value, I believe the main reason for its appeal is its realism. More exactly: the fun derives from the realism. Brass is far more accurate & informative than most games, even many more complex ones. I’d like to show how, despite (relative!) simplicity, Brass deserves attention as a true simulation of the Industrial Revolution. But we should also see how the ambitious historical theme leads, almost by necessity, to inventive game mechanics & a sophisticated, fun playing experience.

Background: Networks across Time & Space

Asked for the main cause of England’s Industrial Revolution, many will answer: James Watt’s steam engine.

To any more vigorous query – for instance, why that same British nation was then able, for the 150 years which followed, to continue leading the world economically & technologically – a likely response might be: the steam railway engine, with the network it spawned.

So, the steam machine did it all?

Clearly this cannot be a “wrong” answer. Still, it’s now so widespread that we’re tempted to dig deeper: why did Watt’s & Stephenson’s steam devices, marginal, bizarre &, in the case of the railway engine downright impractical, suddenly spread so fast, with so few restraints, & across mainly one country?

An essential part of the answer runs along England’s now largely neglected network of canals.

Most of us remember an internet dotcom mania back near the end of the 20th Century. Railroad gamers are also aware that railway stocks, in their 19th Century youth, awoke an equal speculation fever: rail mania. But fewer would acknowledge that something now considered so foul-smelling, antiquated, & slow as canals, toward the end of England’s 18th Century, elicited their very own canal mania. (Incidentally the title & theme of an excellent game by different designers.) Nevertheless, a quarter-millennium ago, canals constituted the Future. They were what the railroad, telegraph, or broadband internet later would be: the high-speed network.

Which might stay a mere factoid, given that canals are hardly hot or high-tech today. But here’s the truth which the game’s designer almost stumbled on: that an early network technology, such as canals, in ways that remain ill-explored, may precondition or at least orient the fate of later networks. A new motor highway, say, partly depends on earlier connections & routes such as railroads or shipping lanes. Further examples, in this age of information, are constantly becoming more numerous & ramified. But for present purposes all we need to know is this:

Early canal networks were themselves a ruinous, long-term, & originally most doubtful investment, which stretched its pioneers – among the world’s richest men – to their utmost limit. The step which followed, dedicated railroad tracks, may seem the most natural thing to us moderns, but had investors not seen the unexpectedly large benefits which canals ended up yielding, any notion of an even costlier infrastructure would have been a monstrous & laughable impossibility. We might even speculate whether Stephenson would have bothered to perfect his famous locomotive. Before that thing could even move, it would crave the meticulous, quite counterintuitive installment of expensive tracks, miles of them, jealously & exclusively dedicated to one unproven contraption. But handily – only in England – now lay  the canals: a private, artificial, yet profitable transport network. Another crazy, titanic bet, which had in fact turned out great for the far-sighted & courageous. Its profits would also contribute no small part in financing future strange & risky ventures.

Precisely this is the first important synergy captured by Brass. A self-reinforcing concert of networks from two different eras & with variant rhythms. First you play the Canal Period, then the game continues into the Rail Period. The resulting interaction is as unpredictable & self-renewing as the age itself, faithful even to finer details which are hardly specified in the game. The intangible backbone of a good simulation.

Perhaps only because this is all complemented by a second synergy which Brass nails just as precisely: the industrial part of any self-respecting Industrial Revolution. Surely canals & trains came in the world to move whatever it is that industrial units produce. Yet in traditional railroad games those vital, productive hubs are often rather inert dots, which it’s mainly a matter of connecting to greatest & most effective degree.

Consider instead this rich chain of events: the first major canals were built to freight the coal which drove the mechanization of the textile industry, notably in Manchester. Soon the cotton processed here, fetched from ports such as Liverpool, came by canal too, became cloth & clothes, then sailed again by similar canals, to ports from which ever more & better ships bore them to the rest of us. When the train replaced the canal boat, even more coal became needed for its boilers, as well as iron for the rails – yet these goods themselves had to be moved, along the very same railway they nourished. Finally, the more technically advanced this entire circuit became, the vaster grew its needs for raw materials, transport, & energy – demands which powered & accelerated its continuing expansion.

In the totality of this beautiful chain – & grimy or not, it is still beautiful – lies the true nature of the Industrial Revolution. But it’s precisely this total circuit – which even the best educated technocrats of ambitious nations repeatedly fail to reproduce & put in motion – that a self-taught game designer has accessed & incorporated wholesale into Brass. Coal, iron, cotton, transport, all in symbiosis. With rules, heaven knows, fiddly & confusing – but admirably spare when you consider the difficulty of the exercise.

Game: Move the Merch. But by Jove, Remember to Produce It.

Route building remains essential in Brass, & should never be neglected. In that important sense the game shows its affiliation with the popular rail game genre of 18xx, Empire Builder, or Wallace’s own (Age of) Steam series. But from that point the game mechanics explode & expand, in due accord with the two synergies outlined above.

First synergy: before the so-called Rail Period, the comparable, shorter, but absolutely foundational Canal Period unfolds, during which railroads are not even yet invented. Instead all transport takes place on canal routes, gradually laid down by the players. At the end of this period, all canal markers are removed, leaving only a few key industrial remnants from this era on the board, after which the route building begins all over with rail. Put like this, the initial canal era may indeed seem a complicating & dispensable redundancy. But this is a superficial view!

Second synergy: of at least equal importance is the element of active production. Players no longer “just” move goods from A to B. They produce them, with components (iron & coal) the accessibility of which depends of the nature & expanse of the entire network. Cities & towns on the board are not inert, but busy actors in producing said iron (or cotton), in the mining of said coal, or in shipping. You must continuously invest in better equipment or more workshops for these productive cities. Also, you’ll be wise to factor your own & your competition’s strong & weak cities into your overall strategy of route building.

The rich gaming perspectives opened by this second aspect, the well-designed interplay of route building & industrial production, are obvious. So back to the first aspect, the canals. Is the game – & here I mean the play itself, the spiel, the fun, as opposed to any academic historicity of theme – improved by baptizing routes “canals” instead of “railroads”, when in game-mechanical terms they really are almost similar? (Not to speak of “fiber cables”, “air routes”, or “spaceship trajectories”.) Clearly no, or not put like this. The strength of having canal routes in Brass lies somewhere else. Namely in iteration.

That fancy word geeks use for repeating a process… Ideally it will involve something cumulative & incremental: i) First build so-called “canals”. ii) Then tear almost everything down (but remember that improved income & advanced structures do endure) & rebuild pretty much the same routes, now calling them “railways”. As when you draw a sketch, rip the paper to shreds, & begin almost anew. Because that first sketch did leave its mark.

With Brass, it’s precisely this abrupt deferral of the final outcome which tears & distorts the player’s strategies in directions more multiplied & richer than if the game ended after only one period or era. As early as possible, players must place themselves & align with a future which will unfold… differently. The game’s great transition, from narrowboats to trains, threatens every part. It’s not the familiar rail game trick of trading your cheap slow loco for racier models. Nor even of buying better machines for your cotton mill. Instead, the entire shared structure of the game mutates. This breeds a vivacity which – to borrow from different time & genre – bears comparison to the architectonic of a movie like Inception: building worlds on a single level already puts you above your peers. But conceive & construct worlds on several interacting levels, & your power will sway the course of History!

Departures: 1+1 Periods = Twice as Good a Game

Is there much need further to detail the benefits – for understanding, but even more for sheer gaming – of a simulation enjoyably replicating the connections, across time as well as space, of so advanced an event as the Industrial Revolution? In the secrets of that age we discern an early draft of all the networks which now clutter our world with their meshed, illegible patterns.

The rules of this game are at times a little awkward. But in exchange, the two eras that this awkwardness allows for yield a depth, warmth, & flow astoundingly hard to reproduce if you amputate that Canal Period which preconditioned it all. In game as well as fact.


Brass. Board game designed by Martin Wallace. Warfrog, 2007. Page on BoardGameGeek.

Malet, Hugh. Bridgewater: The Canal Duke 1736-1803. 3rd revised ed. Nelson, UK: Hendon, 1990. ISBN 978-0860671367. Deals specifically with the conception, construction, & impact of the earliest English canals.

Uglow, Jenny. The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future 1730-1810. London, Faber & Faber, 2003. ISBN 9780571216109. Popular & readable account of the many synergies & links which make up the Industrial Revolution. Set in one of the earliest & most decisive regions to connect by canal to the Liverpool-Manchester universe: the West Midlands. See also this book.

A variant of this text originally posted on BoardGameGeek.

(Webfront illustration caption & credit here.)

Categories: Enlightenment & Industrial Revolution, Simulated Worlds

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